Ray Fougnier is a 71-year-old retiree, an Oneida Indian Nation member and a national award winning powerlifter.
After only recently joining the sport, Fougnier qualified for the worldwide powerlifting championship in Johannesburg, South Africa this June. The Oneida Indian Nation is sponsoring Fougnier’s travel for the international competition.
But the most touching part of Ray’s story is that he is not only in it for himself. He hopes that his active lifestyle and success in competitive powerlifting will inspire the Native American community, and children in particular, to also embrace fitness and health.
Ray’s unique and inspiring story has been featured in various health and fitness media outlets in recent weeks, including the It’s Your Health radio show and The Mind-Body Shift blog.
You can listen to Ray’s radio interview here.
Check out the feature blog article here or read the full text below.
Senior Powerlifted Ray Fougnier/Photo courtesy of Marlene Fougnier
When 71-year-old Ray Fougnier was in his late teens and early 20s, he dreamed of competing internationally in weightlifting, specifically in the Olympics. Then work, marriage and a family took over as top priorities. Little did Fougnier know that a half-century later, he would get to see his vision for international competition come true—he will be competing at the 2014 International Powerlifting Federation World Championships in Johannesburg, South Africa, in June.
The former coach grew up playing sports and has remained active all his life with weightlifting, skiing and other athletic pursuits. Yet Fougnier didn’t begin powerlifting until just a year and a half ago.
He was working out in the local community center, in his current home state of Tennessee, as he had been doing for several years, when a former powerlifter stopped to talk to Fougnier. “He observed my lifting and suggested I try powerlifting. I said I wasn’t very interested,” he said, admitting that he originally thought the sport was “too macho.”
However, he looked into one of the powerlifting associations the man suggested, U.S.A. Powerlifting, the nation’s leading, drug-free powerlifting association. “The website indicated it was drug-free, which was certainly what I wanted,” said Fougnier, a man committed to healthy living, He found out people in local area were holding a meet and decided give it a try.
“The whole atmosphere was different than I thought it might be,” he says. “A lot of people are committed to leading healthy lives, doing things that interest them, traveling, meeting new people and making new friends.”
Fougnier also found out that he was a natural at powerlifting.
He won his first competition and claimed silver for his second. His third event was the national championship in Orlando, Fla. in July 2013. “I did pretty well,” he said humbly.
At the national championship, he won gold in the masters’ class (ages 70 and above) and qualified for the International Powerlifting Federation World Championships. He also broke the squat, deadlift and total weight records: the squat at 290 lbs. and total weight lifted at 890 lbs.
“I didn’t really set out to do this to be some kind of role model, but I started winning champions,” said Fougnier. “My intention was to lead an active and healthy lifestyle in my senior years.”
The retired science teacher is a testament to how a healthy diet and regular exercise can improve your quality of life into the older years. He says older people are not resigned to a rocker on the front porch if they really want to feel productive. “Still be as active as possible, do whatever you want in life,” he said.
Fougnier says he doesn’t relate to the age-stigma. “I’m 71, but I don’t feel 71. I still do a lot of things I’ve done all my life. I haven’t changed all that much,” he said. “I don’t see age as a detriment to having a full lifestyle.”
Prior to getting involved in powerlifting, Fougnier used to lift 6 days a week and rotate his schedule. In powerlifting, days off are a necessity for muscles to recover and regain strength. “Now I train three days a week—Monday, Wednesday and Friday, for two-and-a-half to three hours. This type of competition almost dictates that,” he said. “I do recovery activities on the other days, including stretching and self-massage.”
Fougnier also is mindful of the food he puts into his mouth. He eats organic meats and eggs, lots of fruits and vegetables, nuts, whole grains—including carbohydrates that are “less likely to get you heavy.” He eats a diet low in sugary and fatty foods.
“As people age into my category, they tend to have certain kinds of afflictions, like joint pain, arthritis or diabetes,” he said. “I believe these diseases are of a less healthy lifestyle, not of old age. If you’re active and have a healthy diet, you shouldn’t have to worry about age-related diseases.”
Fougnier attributes his own vitality to exercise and a healthy diet, as well as to the ability to deal with stress. “Life has a lot of stress, but try to get as stress-free life as you can,” he said. “I regularly do deep breathing—muscle contractions and releasing—to stress muscles and relax them. It tends to get rid of tension. I find it convenient and can do it while I’m driving. It’s something I can self-teach myself.”
Fougnier said he rarely gets sick. “I used to teach and be around kids all day, where you are more likely to catch some kind of cold. I’ve been retired for 9 years and maybe have been sick a couple times.” While he occasionally has soreness in his joints from lifting weights, he is on no medication.
The father of three has tried to pass on his healthy habits by example, rather than dictation. However, he recommends people commit to eating right, getting rest, forming good sleep habits, staying away from drug or substance abuse of any kind and keeping active. “Get into regular exercise routine, whatever it is–lifting, sports, swimming,” he said.
Fougnier said he has exercised most of his life, primarily for health reasons. “American Indians have a high incidence of diabetes and heart disease,” he said. “My mother was diabetic, and I didn’t want to follow that myself. I wanted to enjoy myself into my old age.”
Former head of the American Indian program at Cornell University, Fougnier grew up in upstate New York, on the aboriginal land of the Oneida. “There was a lot of prejudice against American Indians when I was growing up,” he said. “They used to be the poorest of the poor.”
While Fougnier recognizes that plenty American Indians are still in very dismal situations, the bias against them as a whole has changed over the last 20 to 25 years. American Indians have become more prominent with the development of gaming and tourism, which has enabled them to put more money into their people, he said. The Oneida Indian Nation is sponsoring Fougnier for the worldwide competition in June.
“The Oneida Indian Nation is thrilled to help make it possible for Ray Fougnier to travel to South Africa and compete in this prestigious worldwide championship competition. Ray is an outstanding Native American role model and a shining example of the values of the Oneida Indian Nation. We are very proud to have him representing us on an international level,” Oneida Indian Nation Representative Ray Halbritter said in a statement.
“It’s great that they are willing to sponsor me to go to South Africa, otherwise wouldn’t be going,” Fougnier said. “I do feel a great sense of pride, representing the Oneida Nation while I’m there.”
He looks forward to the challenge of an international stage in Johannesburg. There wasn’t a lot of heavy competition in his class at the qualifying national championship. “I was able to win that without really having to compete to having to do my very best,” he said. “The number of people competing at Master’s 4 level is far less than those competitive in their 30s, 40s or 50s. Still guys and some women at my level are doing really well at weighlifting.”
Now, there are people at the international event who are competitive to where I am,” he said. “I’d like to win the championships—that’s what I’m training for. I’ll also be part of a USA team going to South Africa, competing against other countries. You do as well as you can individually to contribute to team totals.”
To stay physically primed, Fougnier has competed at other events in between the major championships, continuing to work toward higher goals. He has gone on to win the Tennessee State Championship and the Michigan State Championship.
Fougnier said that he has set goals for himself in the final stages of his training for South Africa. “I’m looking pretty good as long I stay healthy and not get hurt,” he said.
“I’m fulfilling a dream I had 50 years ago,” he said. “Don’t give up on your dreams, however long it takes to achieve them.”